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The Three Bodies of the Buddha

How did the teachings of the Buddha prepare us to continue without a living Buddha to guide us? How were we expected to become a light unto ourselves? How could the Dharma become our light? These were the issues that followers of the Dharma were confronted with following the death of Sakyamuni Buddha. In trying to answer these questions, however, Buddhism would diverge along two great traditions. One of these groups would refer to itself as the Mahayana or "Larger Vehicle," and emphasize the activity of the Buddha to guide all beings to quiescence, serenity, or calm. The Mahayana helps us to see that the treasure of the Dharma and the light of the Buddha are still a part of our world by telling us that the Buddha need not necessarily be before us. They remind us of the following words left by the Buddha:

Disciples, if a disciple of mine takes hold of the hem of my robe and follows me, even if he were to trace my footsteps, if his mind is filled with desire and is in disorder, he will be distant from me, and I shall also be distant from him. The reason for this is that he will not perceive the Dharma.

And he who does not perceive the Dharma does not perceive me. On the other hand, even if a disciple is separated from me by thirty-odd miles, if he has freed himself from desire and if he is of a true mind, he will stand beside me.

The reason for this is that he perceives the Dharma; by perceiving the Dharma he perceives me.

The Mahayana helps us to re-affirm the truth taught by Sakyamuni Buddha that a Buddha can continue to captivate, educate, inspire and motivate us to discover the grand vision of the meaning of human life through the Dharma. Using the voice of the Buddha, the concept of the three-bodies of the Buddha is explained.

O sons of good family, the three bodies of the Tathagata are the Body of Transformation, the Body of Enjoyment, and the Body of the Dharma. The Body of Transformation is the earthly, manifested body of the Buddha, born in this world for the sake of human salvation, engaged in the pursuit of various paths and in the realization of enlightenment. The Buddha with the Body of Transformation strove in the career of teaching, in acquiring the power of knowing people’s individual capacities as well as fitting times and environments, and in revealing his physical body before them. The Tathagata whom you have known through your eyes is this Body of Transformation, which may have been varied according to each individual’s perceptions.

Next, the Body of Enjoyment is the body of skillful means, which is intended to avoid a direct teaching of the absolute truth. It is also intended to eliminate the sense of pleasure or dread from the mind that man incurs because of his attachment to the body of flesh. This body came into being as the result of the original vow and the insight of the Buddha.

Lastly, the Body of the Dharma is the Dharma itself, the body in its essential nature and hence the ultimate ground of the Bodies of the Buddha, in which the absolute truth and the insight into the truth are not yet differentiated into two. The first two Bodies, namely those of Transformation and Enjoyment, are temporary manifestations derived from the Dharmakaya (Body of the Dharma). Therefore, the entire Buddhist doctrine is to be included in or attributed to the Body of the Dharma.

Just as Sakyamuni got up from his experience of Enlightenment to turn the Wheel of Dharma, the above passage helps to give us the sense that the Buddha comes to us. In the case of the Body of Transformation, the Buddha is "born for the sake of human salvation." The Body of Enjoyment makes vows to bring us to Enlightenment, and the Body of the Dharma is the Dharma itself that manifests the other two forms to bring us to Enlightenment. This dynamic aspect of the Buddha is also expressed in the title of Tathagata, a term that literally means, "come from thusness."

This is the grand vision of the Mahayana. In this grand vision, not only are we all capable of becoming a Buddha ourselves, we are moved to see that Enlightened activity is constantly moving to Enlighten all of us. We are all embraced within the truth of the Dharma, and in this embrace are allowed to see both the ultimate equality of life as well as its uniqueness.